Amid multiple scandals, New York governor Andrew Cuomo tried to hold up his state’s budget over a controversial real estate deal that could dramatically reshape the central hub of one of the world’s largest cities. Cuomo’s positioning in the battle is on brand for a politician who has been accused of coddling elites: the deal he is fighting for would be a boon for one of his billionaire donors, Steven Roth, who happens to employ his longtime consigliere.
In Cuomo’s world, loyalty matters most. And perhaps no one has been more loyal — and been more rewarded for his service — than Bill Mulrow.
Mulrow, who once served as Cuomo’s top aide in government, is now moonlighting as an unpaid adviser while working at Blackstone, the private equity giant. As Cuomo faces down a federal investigation into his handling of nursing homes, more than a half dozen sexual harassment allegations, the possibility of impeachment, and numerous calls for his resignation, Mulrow has only drawn closer to his old boss, providing counsel to Cuomo regularly. Cuomo has already tasked Mulrow with overseeing the pandemic recovery.
These days, a new conflict-of-interest involving Mulrow has quietly arisen in a project that could dramatically reshape Midtown Manhattan. Cuomo has been attempting to overhaul the much-maligned Penn Station with revenue generated by an enormous real estate deal surrounding the transit hub. Mulrow, before he exited the Cuomo administration, had been working on the redevelopment plan personally.
Cuomo is trying to bring ten new large-scale buildings — housing offices, retail and residential spaces — to Midtown. At least one of the proposed towers could rival the Empire State Building in size.
Community opposition to the plan has intensified in recent months, in part because Cuomo is seeking to circumvent a local land-use review process. In the state budget negotiations, Cuomo attempted to ram through a $1.3 billion bond deal for the project. Lawmakers pushed back, and were able to stop the use of eminent domain.
The real estate developer that controls the majority of the sites in the Penn Station area is Vornado Realty Trust, helmed by Roth, who has funneled more than $400,000 in campaign cash to Cuomo since 2005.
When Mulrow exited the Cuomo administration in 2017, he became a board member of another Vornado-controlled company: JBG Smith, a real estate investment trust. Over the last four years, Mulrow has collected nearly $1 million as a board member for this company alone. Though Mulrow had left government, technically, he was nowhere out of Cuomo’s orbit: he was chairman of Cuomo’s 2018 reelection campaign.
JBG Smith is little more than a Vornado spinoff. It is described as the “largest, publicly traded, pure-play real estate company in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.”
The company is now developing Amazon’s HQ2 in Arlington, VA. Several years earlier, progressive activists and elected officials thwarted Cuomo’s attempt to bring an HQ2 to New York City.
Mulrow’s dual role — overseeing a massive state project that he could very well profit from in the private sector — has been little remarked upon and raises serious questions about the impetus of the project and who will benefit most from it.
It is also a window into the insular world of New York real estate and how extremely wealthy donors usually get what they want out of city and state government. Vornado is determined to get a return on investment: Roth has donated heavily to Cuomo and retained his closest aide in a lucrative role. In turn, he hopes to build enormous new skyscrapers in Manhattan that have little, if nothing at all, to do with fixing public transportation. Roth has called the Penn Station plan his “big kahuna” for Vornado.
Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo senior adviser, was dismissive about any criticism of Mulrow. “Congrats on being the first person in the world to question Bill’s integrity: You must be proud,” he told me in an email on Monday, responding to a request for comment.
As Cuomo’s era of dominance in New York wanes — he may hang on as governor, but most lawmakers don’t fear him anymore — his ability to bend government on behalf of the real estate industry still stands out.
Real estate titans and landlords have had a dependable ally in Cuomo: someone who battled for years to keep tenant protections relatively weak and strove, whenever possible, to allow the industry to build with impunity. Mulrow, as always, was at the center of things.
Next year, Cuomo is up for reelection. His fate — and whether he gets impeached or forced out of office — may determine the destiny of this megaproject surrounding Penn Station. Mulrow will be wealthy, regardless, but his future as a power broker in the permanent government hinges on the survival of his patron and most powerful ally. Cuomo and Mulrow will swim — and sink — together.